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A CurtainUp Review
Old Wicked Songs
By Elyse Sommer
I had an aunt who saw Gone With the Wind five times, the last time "for the furniture." A play, if it's wonderful stays in our memory for quite a while but as a rule, we don't see it twice in one year. If we do see it again, unlike a movie, it is usually a completely new production. Yet, when I saw Jon Marans' emotionally charged and extremely satisfying Old Wicked Songs, a drama about a young American piano virtuoso suffering from creative burnout and the equally emotionally fragile voice teacher assigned to help him, at the Jewish Rep Theater last year, I hoped it would have another life so I could see it again--not for the furniture, but for another opportunity to catch the subtleties of the way Schumann's "Dichterliebe" song cycle assumed a front-and-center role as a catalyst to lay bare the not-so-obvious layers that make up these two men's individual stories and their relationship to each other.
Now that I've had my wish, I can report that the play has, as they say in the trade, travelled well. In fact, while the production, still under the able leadership of Daryl Roth and Jeffrey Ash in association with the Barrow Group is very much intact, it seems even better and richer than before. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I was never bored but once again caught up in the play's web of emotional intrigue. Justin Kirk, (the young blind man in Love! Valor! Compassion! the only new addition to this production perfectly captures the essence of the young pianist, managing to be at once arrogant and uptight, cool and vulnerable. Hal Robinson repeats his strong performance as Professor Mashkan. He takes Stephen's measure immediately, and "woos" him with dogged persistence. The rehearsal studio looks much the same-- like a lot of old West End Avenue apartments near the theater. The plot is fully rounded. On first take it's the familiar clash between tight self-control and passion, the old and the modern but in the hands of this skilled playwright never quite what you expect. It's sad and it's funny. A high in the funny department is the scene in which Stehen illustrates his ability to mimic such famous pianists as Artur Rubinstein and Glenn Gould.
As for the music. It is the curtain raiser and closer for each scene. It makes possible to say what can't be said otherwise. It bleeds and weeps and tugs at our heartstrings. It makes us grasp the connection between joy and sadness. And it's beautfiul. A young man from India sitting near me, came back to his seat after the intermission humming strains of the melody. What's more you don't even notice when the actors aren't actually doing the singing.
With so many new shows opening up and the high price of theater tickets, it's unlikely that many people will see Old Wicked Songs twice. But everyone should see it at least once. It's as much of a treat as a nosh from Zabar's a few blocks to the north and on the other side of Broadway.